For years, we have published the same editorial on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Typically, this abridged version of one of the great pieces of American oratory, King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, receives little fanfare. That was not the case this year.
On Sunday, after the editorial had been posted online and shared on social media, historian Kevin Kruse tweeted that we “cut out a bunch of parts they apparently deemed too divisive” from King’s speech. People were upset. Then Monday evening, MSNBC host Joy Reid discussed it on her show.
At the risk of sounding unreflective or defensive, we admittedly felt at first like we were caught up in the social media outrage machine, with people essentially attacking us for celebrating King the same way we, and others, have for years — with his own words.
That changed when we heard directly from a former member of the Air Force who was stationed at Dow Air Force Base in Bangor and a Portland city councilor. They explained how our careless editing of King’s speech left out vital, and sometimes unpleasant, parts of his message. Our whitewashing of his message, they told us, ignored the essence of King’s speech and was damaging to Black Mainers.
These and other personal messages landed harder than any tweet or national TV hit. So we offer an apology and this attempt at an explanation. It isn’t meant as a justification, but as a look at our flawed thinking.
Because newspaper readership is low on holidays, we have multiple editorials that we use for certain holidays, like Thanksgiving and Christmas, year after year. Several years ago, a former BDN editorial writer put together a piece we have used on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It was composed of excerpts from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. At over 1,600 words, the entire speech is too long to print in full as a newspaper editorial. The thinking has been that an abridged version was a way to honor King’s legacy.
It is clear that this institutional stagnation was a mistake on our part and that our thinking needs to be revisited, especially in light of recent efforts to erase some of the more controversial aspects of American history.
The Bangor Daily News editorial board has and will continue to speak out on current issues of equality and justice. We do this not to gain favor on social media but because we believe it is the right thing to do.
In June 2020, we turned to King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to help understand the protests and national debate after police murdered George Floyd in Minnesota, and to reflect on how little many things have changed in the last 60 years. We turn to that letter again today.
“More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people,” King wrote in that 1963 letter. “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”
King wrote about his disappointment in “the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice…” We seek to advance justice and equality in our work. We also are literally white moderates, racially and often politically. But we don’t want to be those white moderates King described, and we strive not to be when writing about racial inequality in Maine and across the country.
Also in that letter, King said that “time is always ripe to do right.” Today, for us, doing right means admitting we were wrong to simply reprint an old editorial, and pledging to continue our work of being a voice for equality, freedom and justice.